I am a human geographer writing about post-Soviet migrants and social networks, and specialising in qualitative research. I hold a PhD from UCL.
I am a human geographer writing about post-Soviet migrants and social networks, and specialising in qualitative research. I hold a PhD from UCL.
В этой статье рассматриваются некоторые сложности, с которыми сталкиваются исследователи связанных с Украиной тем в контексте Евромайдана, аннексии Крыма Россией и вооруженного конфликта на востоке Украины. Во-первых, я анализирую соображения «ненанесения вреда» субъектам исследования и избегания возможных рисков для самих исследователей. Во-вторых, я обращаюсь к ограничительному влиянию конфликта на процессы написания текстов учеными. В-третьих, я рассматриваю тему напряженности и разрыва отношений в исследовательских сообществах, которые могут повлиять на процессы совместного производства знания. Основываясь на серии интервью с исследователями Украины, эта статья представляет собой попытку анализа непростых моментов в деятельности ученых в политически чувствительных ситуациях.
This paper addresses some of the challenges that Euromaidan, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the armed conflict in the East of Ukraine present to the work of researchers who study Ukraine-related issues. Firstly, I explore the considerations of ‘doing no harm’ to the research subjects and avoiding the possible hazards to the researcher themselves. Secondly, I look at the conflict’s limiting impact on scholarly writing. Thirdly, I look at potential tensions and splits within research communities that might affect the processes of collaborative production of knowledge. Based upon a series of interviews with scholars of Ukraine, this paper seeks to analyse some of the difficulties facing academics in politically sensitive situations.
Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukrainian media have provided a number of Russian journalists an alternative place to continue their career, whether they were looking for a comparatively free and pluralistic media space, a new job, or safety. The number of Russian media professionals in Ukraine increased in the subsequent years. Euromaidan and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by Russia’s military intervention in Donbas, have contributed to decisions to move or extend their stay in Ukraine. However, these events have also complicated the position of Russian journalists in Ukraine.This paper seeks to explore the challenges connected with being a Russian journalist and working in Ukraine-based media during Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine. This population of migrant media workers has arrived from an aggressor country, where mainstream media have been producing manipulative anti-Ukrainian discourse. They are diverse in terms of social backgrounds and migration histories, but mostly are qualified and experienced professionals. They do not form a tightly knit migrant community, and do not work for media outlets targeting such a community. This article addresses the experiences of a number of these media personalities, drawing upon a series of interviews conducted in late 2015, and open source materials. I argue that the Maidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing conflict have had a significant impact on Russian migrant journalists in Ukraine, by providing a migration context, influencing their work ethics and making them particularly sensitive to the ideas of responsibility and journalistic subjectivity.
Friendship is increasingly drawing attention as a concept used to explain the variety of ways in which migrants develop and sustain local and transnational relations. The advantage of this approach is its focus on social capital and those ‘sustaining and inspirational aspects’ of friendship that contribute to shaping different aspects of mobile individuals’ lives (Conradson and Latham, 2005: 301), instead of interpreting migrant sociality and urban conviviality in super-diverse conditions in terms of ethnic communities. At the same time, the focus on friendship suggests the contingent and nuanced character of these close social ties. Drawing upon an ethnographic case study of a group of young Russian-speaking migrants from post-Soviet countries and their social relationships in a London bar, this article explores the role of friendship in a migrant group located within a particular physical and social space. The place served as an important social junction, and its Russian-speaking network of bartenders and regulars was a source of friendly support and empowerment for its members, helping them confront feelings of marginality. However, close and intimate ties were also at times connected with power relations, reflecting social divisions and the reinforcement of ethnic/national stereotypes regarding those excluded from this social network. This article highlights that friendship encompasses a diverse and dynamic range of inclusionary and exclusionary practices, and discusses how migrant sociality can be negotiated through these practices.
This paper aims to discuss some of the ethical quandaries
that arise in the process of qualitative research on social protest, and
explores the challenges posed by negotiating the engaged researcher’s
national/ethnic origin and gender in the course of fieldwork. It focuses
on an ethnographic study of Ukrainian protest activism in London
during the Euromaidan and Russia’s intervention in East Ukraine,
conducted by a female Russian researcher in 2013–2014.
While fieldwork created challenges for the ethnographer, both
as a Russian national participating in Ukrainian protests against
Russia’s military aggression, and as a female subject to some sexist
treatment from male activists, it reflected the multifaceted nature of
the researcher’s positionality and shifting power relations in the field.
These experiences linked to broader questions, such as the
complicated relationship between Russian and Ukrainian identities
that has been existing in Ukraine’s history and has become tenser in
the current conflict, and problematic gender issues connected with
women’s participation in Ukrainian activism. “Taking sides” as a
researcher provided insights into and personal experience of the
problems and tensions associated with the movement. Provided that
some distance is kept from the participants in the course of political
protest ethnography, and critical reflection is employed at all stages,
engaged research is a valid and valuable approach to accessing rich
This is one of the contributions to the special issue of the Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet
Politics and Society (Vol. 2, No.1, 2016): Gender, Nationalism, and Citizenship in Anti-Authoritarian Protests in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine
ibidem-Verlag published my book titled Migrant Friendships in a Super-Diverse City: Russian-Speakers and their Social Relationships in London in the 21st Century in October 2015.
This timely book offers an integrative and critical approach to the conceptualization of diversity of social ties in contemporary urban migrant populations. It explores the informal relationships of migrants in London and how the construction and the dynamics of their social ties function as a part of urban sociality within the super-diversity of London.Based on the results of a qualitative study of Russian-speaking migrants, it targets the four main themes of transnationalism, ethnicity, cosmopolitanization, and friendship. Acknowledging the complexity of the ways in which contemporary migrants rely on social relationships, the author argues that this complexity cannot be fully grasped by theories of transnationalism or explanations of ethnic communities alone. Instead, one can gather a closer understanding of migrant sociality when adding the analysis of informal relationships in different locations and with different subjects. This book suggests that friendship should be seen as an important concept for all research on migrant social connections.
Foreword by Claire Dwyer Introduction Chapter 1. Limits of transnationalism
London: a super-diverse city
Russian-speaking migrants in London
Transnationalism: introducing a popular concept in migration studies
Who is a transmigrant?
Critique of transnationalism
Conclusions Chapter 2. Ethnicity and social relationships
Ethnicity and migration
Social relationships amongst migrants
The nature of friendship
(post) Soviet friendship
Conclusions Chapter 3. Localising friends
‘It just happens’
Looking for Russian-speakers
Conclusions Chapter 4. Choosing friends
Degrees of closeness
Constructing distances among Russian-speakers in the bar
Divisions within the community
Conclusions Chapter 5. Rethinking friends
Dynamics of change
Social contexts of cosmopolitanisation
‘Us’ and ‘Them’: questioning the dichotomy
Ambiguous images of ‘otherness’
“Drawing on a range of innovative research methods, Migrant Friendships in a Super-Diverse City presents an original and empirically compelling picture of the Russian-speaking diaspora in London. This book is a must for European migration scholars.” — Alan Latham, University College London
Community theatre group Molodyi teatr questions and deconstructs what it means to be an East European migrant in London.
I just joined the theatre group Molodyi teatr a few weeks ago. The troupe is made up of about a dozen East European migrants, mostly Ukrainians and a couple of Russians, including myself. We’re rehearsing a short piece to be performed in commemoration of Holodomor, the man-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33. The text is drawn from interviews with Holodomor survivors, who narrate their stories of practical survival and death in a chillingly mundane manner.
At one of the final rehearsals, a cast member, a Russian-speaking girl who is not Ukrainian, raises her hand in the middle of the reading. Looking uneasy she asks the show’s director, Olesya Khromeychuk, ‘What is this about?’ After a few moments of awkward silence, the rest of the cast begins to laugh somewhat hysterically. In a few simple sentences, Olesya explains to her the history and significance of one of the most traumatic events in twentieth-century Ukrainian history.
This is one of my first memories of joining Molodyi teatr at the end of 2013. It was, of course, before the start of Euromaidan and the related events that triggered the popularity of Ukraine-related topics in the media and public discourse. This cast member’s question was, in part, indicative of widespread historical ignorance and the poor quality of education in some former Soviet republics. However, her question also speaks to a lack of understanding and curiosity between and among disparate (but also interconnected) groups of post-Soviet migrants in twenty-first-century London.
Since the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s intervention in the East of Ukraine, relationships between Ukrainians and Russians in London have soured. Friends have fallen out. Clashes have broken out between Ukrainians staging protests on the street and Russian passersby, at public events and on social media. This doesn’t mean, however, that the war in Ukraine has coalesced Ukrainians and Russians into two opposing communities with clearly demarcated boundaries.
Rallying Ukrainians in London have sometimes found themselves in heated debate on the street with someone who turns out to be from East Ukraine themselves. Quarrels with compatriots – friends and relatives – have now become commonplace. While the conflict has created new fault lines and deepened old divisions in relationships between members of global post-Soviet migrant communities, the patterns of these shifting relationships are subtle and cannot be viewed in black-and-white.
This is among the central ideas behind Molodyi teatr’s first English-language production ‘Bloody East Europeans’. The play was written by Uilleam Blacker, a lecturer in comparative Russian and East European Studies at University College London, and directed by Olesya Khromeychuk, a historian at the University of East Anglia and the driving force behind the theatre group. ‘Bloody East Europeans’ is based on real life accounts of migrants from different East European countries living in London.
The stories are woven into a simple plot. Elements of comedy and drama work to introduce diverse (and mainly marginalised) migrant characters gathered in a bar that gets raided by immigration officers in the second half of the play. In all its simplicity, the play presents a series of vignettes in anecdotal fashion that not only lend the production ethnographic qualities, but also make it, effectively, a theatrical meta-piece: a play by migrants, about migrants.
The stories in the play are brought together to argue against lumping ‘East Europeans’ into one unified or homogenous group. It successfully deconstructs common notions of ‘East European-ness’ through complex accounts of relationships unfolding between the characters on the stage. Most of the time this involves stressing the fact that ‘we’re not all Russian’, or giving the audience a glimpse into the linguistic diversity of the region, or explaining why Ukrainians and Poles may have something against one another.
The play also includes contentious moments, in which such differences and points of tension are themselves performed. For example, at the start of the piece the actors onstage begin introducing the audience to various words and names of cities in Eastern Europe. When one character says, ‘Simferopol!’, a city in Russia-annexed Crimea, another steps forward and adds ‘Nash!’ (‘Ours’ in Russian and Ukrainian) – a clear allusion to the infamous post-annexation Russian slogan ‘Krymnash!’ (‘Crimea is ours!’).
When we performed this segment in London in summer 2015, the tension in the room was palpable. The audience was almost all East European, and mostly Ukrainian. After the show, the actor who played the latter character was worried about the negative reception of these lines. ‘I heard noises. People were definitely not happy about me saying this’, the actor said.
Since the beginning, Molodyi teatr has focused on Ukrainian culture, but the company is not bent on tradition. It is not ethnicity or migrant background that brings its members together. It is, rather, a multilingual space for informal communication about notions of culture in a broad sense. In other words, the group provides a space for the formation of a social network. The members of the troupe are connected through contextual and flexible informal ties of friendship and companionship.
This is not to say that their relationships are always positive and constructive, though: occasionally, there can be tension, anger, and irritation. Just as in any community, there can be frustration and dissatisfaction. There might be boredom. The theatre is an emotional space, after all.
While some of the members say that they joined the theatre because the lives of so many of their compatriots in London seemed too boring and monotonous, the theatre is neither a means of escaping hardships and routine, nor an informal support group. As a community and a participatory space, the theatre offers its members a chance to express their agency. In the case of ‘Bloody East Europeans’, the play allows its participants to speak for themselves and on behalf of other East European migrants in London. The play gives voice to those who are often marginalised, victimised, and stereotyped – undocumented migrants.
By doing so, Molodyi Teatr endeavors to deconstruct not only notions of ‘East-European-ness’, but also the category of ‘illegality’. As one anonymous spectator told the theatre, ‘My life of the last eight years is exactly what you showed in your play’. These kinds of comments from audience members testify to the representational quality of the project in that they come from the groups and individuals who were the initial source of ‘data’ used for the play. Performing for more diverse audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was an important step in terms of moving past the image of ‘diasporic theatre’ and gaining voice on a broader scale.
As ‘Bloody East Europeans’ illustrates through its use of satire, music, and real-life stories, in London there is no single community of East Europeans, post-Soviets, Russian-speakers, Ukrainians, or Russians for that matter. Social relationships among migrants are complex and contingent not only upon historical and political background, but also a variety of personal and structural factors, local contexts such as spaces that they are (co-)inhabiting, and practical qualities of particular relationships.
As London becomes increasingly diverse and questions around migration dominate the press, we can only hope that Molodyi teatr will continue its work as a performative social space empowering both actors and audiences to consider the complexities of London’s social life.
The musical-satire ‘Bloody East Europeans’ by ‘Molodyi teatr’ (Young Theatre) will be featured in the month-long documentary theatre programme at GRAD gallery in London on 9 October. The play is one of three documentary plays included in the series on themes of migration and social inequality in Bulgaria, Russia and the UK. For the complete theatre programme click here.
On 22 July 2015, Legatum Institute hosted a discussion on the critical and ambiguous role of the internet and social media in Ukraine and Russia since the beginning of Euromaidan, as part of its Beyond Propaganda series. The key speakers were Katrina Elledge (US Defence Department and the University of Cambridge), Margo Gontar and Tetyana Matychak (StopFake.org). The discussion was moderated by Peter Pomerantsev.
Elledge started by presenting her forthcoming work focused on the analysis of social media networks that have become active in Ukraine during Euromaidan. She outlined the major powerful aspects of social media: speed and ability to send mass volumes of multimedia content; credibility connected with a tendency of users to trust the information shared by friends; interactivity; and ability to translate online activity into social mobilisation. The speaker demonstrated a YouTube video portraying the Maidan protests in a dark but attractive way as an example of emotional mobilisation that can be promoted via social media.
There was a significant increase and diversification of the ways of using social media since the beginning of the upheaval in Ukraine. Online activity was sustained by decentralised networks with multiple hubs. In terms of particular social networks used, Facebook gradually outpaced Vkontakte as an online tool for coordination and mobilisation. Twitter was less used, but also popular as a means of quickly sharing tactical information.
At the same time, the Yanukovych government, like many authoritarian regimes, also gradually learnt how to use social media for its own aims, noted Elledge. For that matter, although the use of social media or even purchase of mobile phone SIM card does not require obligatory registration in Ukraine, many activists were concerned about possible surveillance, or risks of their personal data being collected over the internet. Another downside of the proliferation of social media was the increase of online activity of Antimaidan groups, resulting in harassment and obstacles to web-based activism. Antimaidan has quickly expanded from one initial web page to over 70 networks, most of which are still active and specialise in promoting negative images of Euromaidan and pro-Ukrainian activities and forces. According to Elledge, during the Maidan these initiatives mainly came from Crimea, Donbas, Odessa, Poltava, and Kharkiv regions.
Elledge concentrated on the capabilities of social media based on their functions and needs that they fulfilled. She mentioned the importance of the role of social media in delivering international outreach, sharing stories that were not covered by mainstream English-language media, and sustaining links with audiences abroad including the Ukrainian diaspora. Online resources like Euromaidan Press and Voices of Ukraine have been influential in this respect. Diaspora-led Twitter storms using the hashtag #digitalmaidan was a notable globe-spanning social media initiative. Social media was also used instrumentally, to recruit volunteers, request donations, coordinate logistics, share information about transportation, shelter, donors and medical services, and provide advice on various matters. Hacktivism and activities of the Anonymous was another way of contributing to Euromaidan online.
The speaker underlined: the Maidan demonstrated that even without previous planning and with little experience, social media allowed for a rapid self-organisation and proved efficient to support the coordination of various initiatives. The development of social media, from increased use of darknet to protect privacy and avoid surveillance to smaller versions of social media apps to make connection more accessible, will be taken into account by future dissidents, asserted Elledge. She also stressed that social media can be used for manipulation, spread of disinformation, harassment and trolling; personal information of the activists may be accessed and used by the government that often may have more resources to develop its media capabilities. However, she concluded, there will always be gaps that the opposition activists will exploit.
Tetyana Matychak chimed in, speaking about witnessing the power of social media during the protests. Connecting the previous speaker’s ideas with her own and Gontar’s reflections on their work on debunking fake news about Ukraine, Matychak suggested that the ‘real’ protest was not sparked by the much-hyped Facebook post by journalist Mustafa Nayyem; the most influential social media trigger, she claimed, was a tweet that went viral about a young female medic allegedly dying after being shot by police, but later turning out to survive. The (mis)information about her death, although it cannot be considered as a deliberate fake, resulted in a real-life offline mobilisation. Matychak recalled that when she worked at Euromaidan Civic Sector and was asked to post online calls for people to take to the streets during the most violent period in the end of February 2014, she simply couldn’t do it: internet has already proved to be too powerful a tool of social mobilisation that could have deadly consequences.
According to Matychak and Gontar, currently almost 50% of StopFake’s audience comes from Russia. While since its inception the project was primarily targeting the Ukrainian audience, after a while part of this audience developed a certain fatigue, as well as a general understanding that Russian media tends to lie. Currently, media users from Russia are an important part of StopFake’s readership. This is why the project decided to keep its Vkontakte web page: although many Ukrainians have migrated to Facebook, it remains a way of reaching out to other audiences. European and US audiences are also covered by the project, which has an English-language version, and is about to launch a Spanish-language page. The project is planning to start a series of training workshops in regions of Ukraine. StopFake does not only target Russian media: Ukrainian fakes comprise around 20% of what they debunk. Rather than being genuinely provocative or malevolent, these kinds of fakes usually result from lazy journalism or lack of reflexivity of new opinion leaders who emerged during the Maidan; often, such fakes can be shared by Ukrainian media primarily because they portray Russia in a bad light.
Estimating the impact of StopFake’s work is still difficult: Gontar said that only recently she started to receive emails from people thanking the project for changing their minds. She noted that the audience of StopFake includes those in the ‘loyal zone’ and in the ‘grey zone’: while the ‘loyal’ ones are already ‘converted’, the success of the project depends on its ability to influence those in doubt.
Gontar spoke about the ways in which Russian media uses internet in the information war against Ukraine. The state funding for Russian media agencies is increasing, and the web is also part of Russia’s strategy in the conflict. Online media outlets exist for each channel. The spread of disinformation is facilitated by a plethora of ‘separatist media’ – marginal sites that share the same fake news stories. Fake stories are multiple and may even get into mainstream English-language media: this was the case with the infamous John Pilger article published in The Guardian in May 2014 which quoted a fictional statement. The use of pictures by media provokes emotional responses. The army of paid trolls can inundate the comments sections of online articles with provocative and disparaging comments.
One of the questions raised during the discussion was about the possibility of media projects like StopFake reaching Donbas. Matychak noted that a significant part of the local population has access to internet and can visit StopFake website; the other question is whether they would be willing to do so. The speaker stressed the importance of broadcasting the news on TV and radio, as people tend to believe these sources; however, it is difficult to broadcast to occupied territories. Marina Denysenko, a media expert from the audience, referred to surveys commissioned by NGO Telekritika, specifying that access to Ukrainian TV still exists in the Donbas region, although trust to Ukrainian media in the occupied territories is relatively low. Gontar mentioned that StopFake hopes to broadcast to the East in collaboration with Hromadske radio and Russkoe Radio Ukraine.
In conclusion, LSE researcher Gregory Asmolov commented on the current social and political role of media. Asmolov pointed out that the position of social media in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is clearly prominent; but even more significant is its role in the relationship between the state and its citizens. Indeed, the high degree of legitimacy of the ongoing conflict in the Russian society means that people are strongly engaged in the information war. In these circumstances, it is difficult to differentiate between vertical and horizontal propaganda, as the horizontal one is often manipulated and directed in a vertical way. Today’s news rapidly seeps into personal communication and social interactions, making the conflict an omnipresent part of everyday life, as a result of the simultaneous processes of socialisation and internalisation of conflict.